Sophists Journal: Antiphon’s Tetralogies & Legal Speeches; Rant: The Glory that was Greece vs. Early Christianity

The chapter on Antiphon was fruitful in other areas, too. I learned that Antiphon composed works called the Tetralogies as examples of his skills as a speechwriter and legal defendant.

The tetralogies are essentially debates between prosecution and defendant, with Antiphon having written the opening and closing statements of each (thus, “four words,” and hence the title). Gergel and Dillon aptly compare composing these tetralogies to playing chess against oneself, and I agree with them when they write that the tetralogies are a real tour de force.

The first tetralogy involves a murder mystery. A businessman has been found dead, attacked in the street at night outside a drinking establishment. His slave, dying, indicates his murderer as his arch-rival, a man who has been at the losing end of a number of lawsuits with the deceased. The enemy of the deceased certainly had a motive, and was fingered as the murderer by the slave–but the testimony of slaves was not usually considered valid without the presence of torture. (And this is absolutely horrific: not only the tegralogies, but also the other, actual legal speeches of Antiphon that I read on the Perseus Project refer extremely frequently to the fact that slaves’ testimony was most likely to be received only when the slaves were tortured–and they could be tortured by both sides.) In his speeches, the defendant marshals a number of arguments from probability to indicate that he would have been foolish to commit a murder in which he would be the number one suspect.

The second tetralogy involve an accidental homicide: one boy has thrown his javelin in javelin practice, and another boy has run in the way, resulting in his death. The prosecution argue that the first boy should have thrown his javelin more carefully. The defense argues that the first boy was doing as he was told by the instructor (a complicating factor!), and that the second boy–the one who died–was at fault. In the second speech one can find this jewel:

I want you first of all to grasp that a man is not a murderer just because someone says he is, but only if someone can prove it.

I have already referred, in my Gorgias journal, to the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” but it seems worth pointing out that we have another instance of it here.

The third tetralogy involves an instance of a bar-fight in which a drunken older man has attacked a younger man whose return punch sent the older man to his death. In this tetralogy, the issues revolve around the following: (1) is the young man guilty of murder or intentional homicide? and (2) Could the young man have defended himself with less force? In a world in which everyone is talking about how a night-watchman shot and killed an unarmed younger man who was apparently a gangster wannabe, the third tetralogy speaks to us with continued relevance.

Overall, I have have much respect for Antiphon’s mind. Obviously, he was an extremely intelligent rhetorician, and indeed, Thucydides presents him as such in his History of the Peloponnesian War. It’s a shame that Antiphon got himself involved in a military coup, though, but as we shall see, there was a circle of aristocratic reactionaries who were involved in the Sophistic movement.

A Rant
It was in this chapter that I read Xenophon’s famous definition of a Sophist. Before proceeding to it, I should remind my readers that Xenophon wrote a number of Socratic dialogues himself. It would seem that not only Socrates, but also his two disciples who wrote the most of him–Plato and Xenophon–was many of the sophists as somewhat nefarious characters. Xenophon makes his Socrates say to Antiphon:

Someone who sells his youthful beauty to anyone who wants it is called a prostitute . . . . And similarly in the case of wisdom, those who sell it to anyone who wants it are called sophists.

That was bad enough on Xenophon’s part–but not entirely without justification–perhaps, but the comments of Origen are downright disgusting. When I read them, I lamented for the glory that was Greece. How could that civilization of philosophers, engineers, and mathematicians give way to the prejudices of early Christianity? Anyway, here are the comments of the so-called Church Father Origen:

Even if an orator was a Demosthenes, with all the sinfulness characteristic of him, and with the deeds resulting from that sinfulness; or even if another is thought to be an Antiphon, who even denied the existence of providence in his work entitled On Truth–a title similar to that of Celsus’ own work—nonetheless, they are worms wallowing in some patch of the mud of stupidity and ignorance.

What ghastly language and thought processes we have here! To attack Demosthenes and Antiphon as “worms wallowing in the mud” is a ridiculous (and ironically wrong) assertion for Origen to make. As we have seen, the legacies of ancient Greece include the presumption of innocence until proven guilty (Gorgias and Antiphon), an awareness that mitigating factors should be taken into account in murder trials (Antiphon), an awareness that opinion does not equal fact (Gorgias), an awareness of the rights and potential of women (Gorgias, Euripides, the later Aristophanes and Menander), the knowledge that the Earth was a ball floating in space with a circumference of what we now know it to be (Eratosthenes, whom I’ve not yet commented on), recognition of the variety and beauty of human sexual experience (Sappho, whom I’ve not yet touched on, either)–and here we have some Taliban-like upstart criticizing all of this as “worms crawling in mud”! It makes me genuinely angry that Origen and his ilk were to destroy so much that was precious and valuable in Greek culture and bring on what we now call the “Dark Ages.” We are light years behind in our cultural development thanks to them.

I was going to write that not all was perfect in classical Greece, and I have already registered by horror at the use of slaves’ testimony under torture, but Antiphon had already criticized this very poignantly in his Tetralogies. But the fact remains that it was far better than what came after: a mob of religious zealots who plotted holy wars and genocide, who killed brilliant mathematicians like the gifted Hypatia, burned books, and as recently as only three hundred years ago sent the brilliant astronomer and scientist Galileo to what they thought was hell. And although Christianity no longer has the power it once did, fundamentalist Islamism has sadly taken its place. To that I can only say: Go, Malala Yousafzai, go! This gentle and intelligent–and educated–girl from the villages of Pakistan embodies the best of the legacy of the West. As long as there are enough like her, there is hope for humanity.

And on that note I end my journal on Antiphon. We now proceed to Critias.

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